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Preview: Hornets at Celtics, Game 31

12.31.10 at 9:12 am ET

No team in the NBA has had an odder beginning to their season than the New Orleans Hornets, who started the season by winning 11 of their first 12 games, and then lost 13 of their next twenty. The on-court ups and downs are a very small part of the Hornets’ story, however. In early December, the NBA announced that they had purchased the team from owner George Shinn, setting off all kinds of panic alarms about the future of the franchise.

While the Hornets operate in limbo, the ingredients for a solid team are in place. They rank among the top teams defensively. David West is still a decent scorer, Emeka Okafor has solidified his role as a defender and rebounder, and of course, there is Chris Paul, who is re-establishing himself as the best point guard in the league.

Beyond that trio, the Hornets have problems. Marco Belinelli has predictably cooled off after a hot start and Trevor Ariza has struggled offensively. Their poor shooting on the perimeter helps explain the Hornets lackluster offensive numbers, even with Paul. A second unit that has yet to establish itself is another cause for concern.

As long as Paul is there, the Hornets remain a dangerous, albeit flawed team, and until their franchise situation is resolved, their future remains murky.

HORNETS (18-14, 4-6 last 10)

Offensive Rating: 104.2 (Points scored per 100 possessions, 23rd)

Defensive Rating: 102.6 (Points allowed per 100 possessions (7th)

Pace: 90.1 (Possessions per game, 26th)

Likely Starters: Chris Paul, Marco Belinelli, Trevor Ariza, David West, Emeka Okafor

Rotation: Jarrett Jack, Jason Smith, Willie Green, Quincy Pondexter

Injuries: West (Ankle, questionable)

CELTICS (24-6, 8-2 last 10)

Offensive Rating: 108.3 (11th)

Defensive Rating: 99.4 (1st)

Pace: 90.9 (22nd)

Likely Starters: Nate Robinson, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Glen Davis, Shaquille O’Neal

Rotation: Marquis Daniels, Jermaine O’Neal, Avery Bradley, Von Wafer

Injuries: Rajon Rondo (Ankle, questionable), Kevin Garnett (Calf, out), Semih Erden (Flu, questionable), Delonte West (Wrist, out), Kendrick Perkins (Knee, out).

KEY MATCHUP: Chris Paul vs. Nate Robinson (or maybe, Rajon Rondo)

If Rondo is able to play, and there is doubt after Doc Rivers told WEEI that Rondo has experienced swelling in his ankle after workouts, then the task of guarding the NBA’s best point guard falls to Robinson.

The NBA’s point guard trinity consists of Paul, Rondo and Utah’s Deron Williams. (Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook are closing in, but not there yet, while Tony Parker, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash linger). Rondo has the ring, as he supposedly said to Paul in their contentious meeting last fall, but Paul is still the league’s standard-bearer at the position. There are lots and lots of numbers that back Paul up, but a more interesting debate is what would happen if you put Paul on a team like the Celtics and Rondo on a team like the Hornets.

Certainly Paul is a more accomplished scorer than Rondo and may be better-suited to a team that needs him to dominate that area, but Rondo has flourished playing with future Hall of Famers, and of course he has the playoff success that Paul doesn’t. Perhaps it’s telling that both teams would have to think long and hard about trading one for the other.


1. Will Rondo play?

It appears to be a game-time decision, and if he can’t go the Celtics will have their hands full with Paul.

2. How will the Celtics adjust to life without Kevin Garnett?

Glen Davis will likely start, which leaves a huge hole on the bench where Davis is soaking up 30 minutes a night behind Garnett and Shaquille O’Neal. That means more time for Jermaine O’Neal who played well against the Pistons. Doc Rivers could also go small with Paul Pierce and Marquis Daniels as the forwards.

3. It’s an afternoon game after a long road trip.

The schedule leads to its own problems as the Celtics returned home Thursday after a week on the road. There has been precious little practice time the last month and it generally takes teams a game to return to form after a road trip. The injuries don’t help either. This has all the makings of a grind-it-out game between two of the NBA’s top defenses.

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